Everything Is Stories spoke with artist Trevor Paglen about secrecy, surveillance, and democracy in the 21st century. One of Paglen’s projects, Limit Telephotography, explores classified military structures by using long-distance photography, creating an effect of both mystery and beauty.
He will have an upcoming exhibition in New York City, opening September 10 at Metro Pictures. You can read a transcript of the conversation below, and for more on Paglen and his contemporaries, read our introduction to surveillance art by Quinn Moreland.
What led you down this path to start working in the realms that you do? For example, your Limit Telephotography project, what sparked that idea?
I was looking at aerial photographs of where prisons were and what they were before. At the time, there was no Google Earth. Instead, you used the US Geological Society Archives. While researching, I noticed there were images missing from the archives. There were these weird structures out in the desert in the same places where there were prisons. These structures were military places that I’d never heard of. They were bases, secret Air Force bases, and different private bases where they could fly drones and stuff like that.
I started driving around and looking at these military installations when I could. They weren’t on public land, and they had huge buffer zones around them in the desert. I was climbing mountains, using binoculars to try and see these things. You could see them shimmering in the distance. I spoke with a friend about whether or not you could use a telescope to actually try and photograph them. My friend said, “I guess you could. But it would just look like an impressionistic painting because there would be so much turbulence in the air.” That wouldn’t be so interesting from a journalistic perspective, but from an art perspective, it’s kind of interesting.
When you’re thinking about photographing black military sites is there any kind of apprehension going through your head? Are you wondering if they’re watching you doing this?
A little bit. But on the other hand, you’re really far away from these places and because it’s the desert you can see somebody coming from dozens of miles away. We definitely thought that someone was probably watching us. I’m sure somebody was. But at the same time, I don’t think it made me nervous.
Do you remember a point in your life when you were aware of surveillance? When did these kinds of ideas start to materialize with you as a concept?
When I was a teenager, I moved to Germany for a little while. Culturally, Germany is set up in a way that politically—it is much more liberal than the US. Using any metric you want, whether it’s income inequality or political representation, it’s to the left of the US. The US is an extreme right wing culture.
But socially and culturally, Germany can be much more conservative. Where I was living, it was rural. There was a pressure to conform that I had not experienced in the US. I realized that was kind of surveillance in a way. It’s not state surveillance. It’s neighborhoods and cultural norms.
An interesting thing about your work is that there’s no point of view. It doesn’t try to sway you. Is that something you take into consideration?
I’m generally less interested in art that’s trying to make an argument. Essays can make arguments. Journalism can make arguments. Lectures can make arguments. I don’t think images can argue very well. Images are slippery things that don’t ultimately mean anything.
What images can do is help us learn how to see. With a lot of the photography, I want to say “What does the constellation Orion look like in 2015?” If you look Orion in 2015, there will be a spy satellite in there. And to me, that’s an act of trying to see the historical moment that I’m living in.
That leads into our next question. When you look up at the sky at night, what do you think? Minus your projects, what goes through you mind when you look at the stars?
I’ve been looking at the sky now for years, and I’ve learned all the constellations. Reading the sky feels great. For example, there will be a certain kind of flash, and I know it’s the international space station. Or if a satellite is going from one point to another in a polar orbit, that’s probably a spy satellite. You start to learn this visual vocabulary that’s a part of our everyday world.
There’s a lot of work that goes into your projects, a lot of research you do. Why is all this important to you at the end of the day? Why is it important to document and present all these different aspects of, say, surveillance as a broad term?
For me, the bigger project is really this project of seeing. I want to understand how the world we live in works, and I want to understand how to see it. I want to understand how to spot all of the things are going around us all the time that tend to be ignored or that we literally don’t see.
With some of the surveillance related projects, it’s about the fact that these things have a huge impact on historical trajectory of all humans. It’s a huge issue up there with global warming and economic inequality.
That starts to touch a point you’ve made in an interview we came across where you said, “When we’re talking about secrecy and democracy, we’re talking about ideal forms that don’t exist.” Can you expound a bit on that?
We use metaphors to describe the world that are gross oversimplifications of how the world actually works. This is true of every single word in the English vocabulary. Democracy is a word like that. There is a huge range of political systems that we could broadly define as democracy. There are parliamentary versions. There are direct versions. There are more anarchistic versions of it.
Secrecy is another word like that. Secrecy is an abstract logic. It’s a way of trying to organize things in such a way that they’re invisible, that they’re silent. That’s fine as a theory, but when that theory becomes implemented in the world, it gets very complicated.
The example I sometimes give is that you can build a secret airplane, but you can’t build a secret airplane in an invisible factory. That factory has to look like any other factory. It’s a little bit of a philosophical point, but as soon as secrecy actually becomes a part of the world it gets messy. It becomes visible in all kinds of ways, and it takes on a political logic. It creates political institutions that try to enhance that secret.
Secrecy is an abstract logic. It’s a way of trying to organize things in such a way that they’re invisible, that they’re silent. That’s fine as a theory, but when that theory becomes implemented in the world, it gets very complicated.
Right now, secrecy is a big issue—the expiration of the Patriot Act, the actions of the NSA these last couple of years, etc. Do you think it’s possible for both the individual and the institution to become transparent? Do you think secrecy is somewhat of a necessary evil to keep the order of things?
A lot of people think that secrecy and privacy is the same thing. They have nothing to do with each other. Privacy is when you are a person with a right for an interior life. That has nothing to do with state secrecy. When we’re talking about state secrecy we’re talking about political institutions, we’re not talking about people. One of the tenants of democracy is there’s a society in which the government has maximum transparency and the populous has maximum opacity. In other words, you are trying to create a society that ideally the power is heavily weighted in favor of the people as opposed to the state.
To the question about whether secrecy is necessary or not—we are living in a world where about 50 or 60 billion dollars is spent in secret every year. We have secret laws, secret interpretations of laws, and secret courts. The FBI can issue gag orders to people they are soliciting information from. To me, it seems like we’ve gone too far. We should not have secret institutions and secret budgets. We should not have secret courts and secret interpretations of laws.
Jumping back to your work, whether it be the telephotography shots or even the black ops patch project, how does it make you feel? What goes through your mind? While being incredibly beautiful, they also feel quite ominous in ways.
I see the same thing. It’s a mixture of interest, being afraid, and beauty. When you’re standing on a mountain in Nevada looking at a shimmering horizon, it’s really something. When you’re looking at the night sky and you see a reconnaissance satellite moving though Corona Borealis, it’s beautiful.
But then on the flip side you have to ask yourself what are those things doing there.
Exactly. That kind of dual relationship is something that is attractive to me. There’s something very complicated that doesn’t resolve itself easily.
What do you think the future holds in terms of surveillance? Will there be more or less due to public outcry? Will it always be with us?
It’s such an important issue at this particular moment in history. We’re crossing a bridge in terms of how societies are organizing everything digitally. Everything is becoming information. The reason surveillance is so important right now is because it has to do with who has the rights to that information and what can they do with it.
You start thinking about technology, and there is a convenience factor. For example, tracking your health via applications. A lot of people don’t realize where this information could end up.
Exactly. Should the NSA know what food is in your refrigerator when you have a smart fridge that’s reading the Quick Respond codes on the products? That’s a real question, not science fiction.